The message delivered to a group of Jewish teens at the Yeshivah of Flatbush one afternoon this week was typical: study Torah, be proud Jews, speak up for Israel.
But the messenger was a little unusual.
Walid Shoebat was for several years, as he introduced himself to 500 day school students, "a Palestinian terrorist."
A native of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, a Muslim by birth, a product of Palestinian schools that taught the inherent inferiority of Jews, he threw stones at Israelis, severely beat an Israeli soldier, threw a bomb atop a Bank Leumi in Israel and later served as a Palestinian activist in the United States.
Then he underwent a rare spiritual turnabout more than a decade ago, renouncing violence, embracing Christianity and touring the United States to preach his message of tolerance to Jewish and Christian audiences.
"What made you change?" asked one Yeshivah of Flatbush student, junior Joshua Twito, at the start of Shoebat’s presentation.
Over the next two-plus hours, Shoebat answered that question.
With graying hair and a middle-aged paunch, dressed in an open-collar beige shirt and brown jacket, alternating between shouts and whispers, quoting the Quran and Hebrew scriptures, Shoebat described how he tried to convert his Christian wife to Islam; how he read the Jewish Bible and the New Testament in order to find unfavorable depictions of the Jews; how he came away convinced that his Muslim upbringing had lied about Jews and Judaism and how he has spent the last decade in synagogues, churches and university auditoriums.
And he explained why.
"I fell in love with the Tanach," he said, using the Hebrew acronym for the entire Jewish scripture. "I fell in love with Jewish heritage. I fell in love with Jewish art."I wanted," he said, "to fight the Hamans of the world."
Shoebat said he found enough truth in the New Testament to accept Christianity, but he became a devotee of Judaism, studying Jewish philosophy and watching tapes of "Fiddler on the Roof" more than 350 times.
Shoebat is now a U.S. citizen.
He is vague about his age ("middle 40s"), the number of years he has lived in the U.S. ("about 25") and the location of his home (somewhere in California, under an assumed name). Shoebat travels with no apparent security detail or accompaniment, but is understandably circumspect about his whereabouts and travels. He refers in his writings to threats against his safety but offers no details.
With angry, still-Muslim relatives in the West Bank, too much openness about his life "is very dangerous to your health," he said.
"I lost my family, my friends, my community, my culture, my money and my land," he wrote in "Why I Left Jihad," his 2005 book (Top Executive Media) that is part autobiography, part political polemic, part religious tract. "I am branded as a traitor by Arab Christians, by my own family and by the Muslims in my community.
"I choose to speak out because I know what is wrong," he wrote.
"The Israeli Arab conflict is not about geography but about Jew hatred," Shoebat states on the Web site (www.shoebat.com) of the foundation he established to further his work.
"The problem" in the Middle East "is not an issue of land," he said at the Yeshivah of Flatbush. "It’s not an issue of occupation [of Arab lands by Israel]. It’s an issue of the occupation of minds of millions of Muslims."
In other words, the teachings of the Quran, that "infidels" or individuals who leave Islam should be killed.
"What part of ‘kill’ doesn’t the West understand?" Shoebat asked rhetorically. "There are no allegories in the Koran."
One member of the audience asked Shoebat if he could have reached his accommodating positions about Jews and Israel if he had remained a Muslim.
No, Shoebat said. "You don’t see the word ‘love’ in the Koran. It would have been impossible for me."
Shoebat said he usually encounters more approval among Christian audiences than among Jewish, often liberal Jewish, audiences.
They are suspicious of him as a self-declared onetime terrorist, as an up-front Evangelical Christian, as the putative recipient of financial support from sympathetic Jews. Yes, he was a terrorist.
Yes, he is a Christian. No, he doesn’t receive any money from Jewish organizations, he said.
"All the opposition I got was from Jews," Shoebat said, especially from Jews who favored the land-for-peace formula of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
"Giving land goes against the will of the God of Israel," he said. "Giving land creates confidence for the enemy."
Shoebat said he has met few like-minded Arab Muslims, and has not been able to change any minds.
"I am always asked, ‘How come you don’t speak to the Arabs?’" he said. "I answer, ‘It doesn’t work that way. You don’t go planting seeds on stones.’" Most Muslim Arabs, "blinded" by years of anti-Semitic teachings in schools and mosques, will not listen, he said.
"Our job is to change the Jews and the Americans," Shoebat said.
Rabbi Avner Taler, faculty adviser of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Israel Awareness Committee and chair of the school’s Tanach Department, said the yeshiva brought Shoebat as a speaker to "present a person who’s been on the other side" of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. "He’s a chiddush [a new twist]. He presents a point of view that the kids don’t hear much."
The program was brought to the Yeshivah of Flatbush through the efforts of alumnus Joey Sasson, who had heard Shoebat speak and felt his message was important for the Jewish community to hear. Sasson contacted YOF faculty member Rachel Winkler and her husband Nachum, who then served as liaisons in making the arrangements for the interaction between students and Shoebat and the community program later that night.
Joshua Twito, whose Israeli-born father lost a cousin in a terrorist attack near Beersheva about two years ago, said he was initially skeptical about hearing Shoebat. "We have the once-a-terrorist, always-a-terrorist mentality," he said.
"He’s good," Twito said afterwards. "He addressed the issues in a way that is conducive to the situation." That is, Shoebat deals with anti-Semitism in Arabic and Islamic society.
But Twito said he left with no more optimism after listening to Shoebat. "There’s only one of him," he said.